Nosy Neighbors Are Killing Childhood As We Once Knew It

Playing OUtsideThey thought their kids were walking to the park the day the cop car pulled up to their suburban home. But Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10- and 6-year-old children weren’t park-bound anymore. They were in the back of the police car.

The kids were fine. Their parents were about to be very un-fine. In the months since the police pulled up to their house, the climate science consultant and the physicist have been convicted of “unsubstantiated child neglect,” a charge they’re reportedly fighting.

The charge stems, it seems, from a call placed to police by an as yet unnamed person, someone who saw the Meitiv kids walking alone to the park.

My daughter is 9.

She doesn’t leave our yard very often, mostly because she hasn’t expressed an interest in doing so. She has plenty to entertain her in a backyard with a swing set and trees, a front yard with a flat driveway for scootering, and a bedroom full of the detritus of modern childhood.

At times I wonder if I shouldn’t encourage her to spend more time stepping beyond the confines of our yard. At her age, I would disappear for hours with the neighbor kid, jumping on our bikes and riding off on grand adventures. Although we lived right beside a river, we were both on strict instructions never to step foot into the water without an adult around, and we could be trusted to do so. We did, however, while away days crawling through the natural forts created by the tangle of rhododendron limbs along the riverbank, imaging ourselves setting up houses … or castles. We went salamander searching, tadpole fishing, treasure hunting. We drank from the cup of freedom on summer afternoons, pedaling our way down our one lane road with a reckless abandon.

We were rebels. We were royals. We were roust-abouts and renegades.

We were country kids.

And if we’d had parks, surely we would have ventured to them all by our lonesome.

When we decided to raise a kid in the country, I envisioned lazy summer evenings spent on the porch, my husband and I, waiting for our child to come wheeling up the driveway on her beloved bike, mud-covered, with a jar full of lighting bugs in the basket.

Call it a cliche, if you must, but it’s my cliche. I lived it, along with millions of country kids raised in the ’80s, the ’70s, and decades prior.

And I worry my daughter never will. Not because I’m a more cautious parent than those of the ’70s and ’80s. I believe in teaching kids to watch both ways before they cross the road, not to touch the hot burners on the stove, and never, ever take candy from a stranger. But I’d hardly call myself a hoverer. There’s something to be said for developing your kid’s ability to assess risk by letting them make a few mistakes.

No, I’m not afraid of letting her out of my sight because I don’t think she can hack it.

I am, however, increasingly afraid of what others will think she can and can’t do … and what it is that they might do about it. Will the sort of judgmental types who have taken to sticking their noses into other people’s parenting in this past decade be making a call to the police, to report a child being allowed to, gasp, ride their bike to the local post office?

It happened to the Meitivs. It happens more and more frequently, in fact: Parents of the sort who would have been considered absolutely normal 10 or even 20 years ago are facing investigations of neglect for letting their kids act like … kids.

And why? Not because they’re bad parents. And not even because we have a responsibility in this global village to lean in and help parent one another’s children. We do, and we should. It’s never comforting to get a call from another parent to report something your child is doing wrong, but sometimes we need to hear the tough stuff. Sometimes we make those calls because we’d want someone else to do the same for us.

But society has shifted from those well-meaning calls, the offers of help, the “we’re all in this together” hands held out to calls to the police, attempts to punish, trumpet calls that we’re not in this together.

Kids like mine are missing out on some of the best childhood has to offer not because we’re an unsafe society but because we’re one lacking in compassion and true community spirit.

 

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Comments

  1. YES! I am a firm believer in the “village mentality. Instead of the initial instinct to just call the police, why aren’t we working together? And why are the police so quick to assume that a nosy neighbor knows how to parent better than the parents themselves? How are our children going to learn to think, develop good judgement if they are never allowed to practice those skills. It’s sad, and I admit to being guilty of it myself, but part of the problem is that we don’t know our neighbors, nor they us.

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